Ask the Acquisitions Editor: Query Letter Do's & Don'ts #amediting

As promised, I'm back with more answers to your questions for CK Wagner, Acquisitions Editor at Omnific Publishing (who just announced a super exciting deal with Simon & Schuster). You can read her answers to questions about cold querying, crazy queries, and the importance of online presence & past sales in last week's Ask the Acquisitions Editor post. Today's questions are all about queries and synopses.

Liz: What do you love to see in a query?

Donna: What three things do you look for in a query that piques your interest every time?

CK: I personally like to see a query letter that gets right to the point. The fundamentals I care about most are:

1. Summary. Keep it clear and concise (two to three short paragraphs usually suffice. A cover letter shouldn’t exceed one page when printed; the synopsis is your chance to elaborate). Set up your main character and conflicts so we understand what drives the story and can already establish a connection. An effectively condensed blurb also shows how much grasp you have on the plot—a good indicator of how tightly controlled it is in the actual manuscript.

2. Stats. Specify word count, genre, subgenre, and intended audience. I automatically reject anything that doesn’t meet a minimum of 60,000 words or doesn’t fall within the romance genre. It’s also good to know whether your story is paranormal, contemporary, historical, dystopian, sci-fi, etc. (we consider any number of subgenres) and if it’s intended as young adult, new adult, adult, or erotica.

3. Bio. A concise paragraph about who you are and what you do is helpful for simply getting to know you as well as seeing if perhaps your professional background lends itself to your writing and/or content (a plus if so, but still okay if not. We’re just curious).

L. Diane: When is a query letter too long?

CK: Anything beyond what's listed above is icing on the cake—which is too sweet for my taste, if I’m honest. :) Beyond being unnecessary, flowery explanations of your passion for writing and aspirations as an author are my number one turn-off. Your love of writing and dreams of being a published author are implicit in the act of querying. And, really, I don’t regard one writer’s passion as more distinctive and special than another’s.

Margo: Does personalizing the letter at the beginning really make any difference, or do agents/acquisitions editors prefer you just get to the story description?

CK: Oddly enough, I’m also not swayed by specific praise for Omnific because, really, how do we know you’ve read our books and enjoyed them? People can say anything to butter us up. I’m more interested in knowing that you’ve done your research on us, which is at least reading the submission guidelines on our website. This doesn’t have to be stated explicitly in the query—show your awareness of our genre specialization by querying a romance. Show your awareness of our process by not submitting anything more than what we request of you. For our first stage, we only accept cover letters and a synopsis; unsolicited chapters or full manuscripts aren’t considered unless we ask for them as the next step.

CK: Every publisher/literary agency is different, of course. If a business’s website clearly specifies certain content and the order/length of such, you need to follow those instructions to a T. Inboxes get flooded with queries every day, so being a stickler for submission guidelines is another means of filtering. Seeing whether someone has read and followed the rules is a pretty black-and-white way for editors/agents to gauge how much thought and diligence was put into querying their company specifically—the logic being, if you can’t be bothered to read their website and honor their requests, why should they bother reading your submission when there are so many others to consider who have put forth the effort? Are you serious about being represented/published by this particular company, or are you just playing a numbers game and blasting a one-size-fits-all query to everyone regardless of what they’ve asked for?

Feather: All agents have specific submission criteria. Some even state the required information must be in a specific order. I have also been advised that all query letters should have specific information in each of the four paragraphs. There is such a wide range of formats. Why? Is it possible to create one well written query letter that will be accepted by all agents?

CK: I’m just playing devil’s advocate here. As a fellow writer, I completely understand the frustration of having to tailor every query to every publisher or agency. I wish the industry would adopt a universal standard. But unfortunately, it’s just not the case, and so we adapt. I think there’s generally more difference in expectation for synopses than cover letters, though, so there’s at least that. If you draft a letter that contains the three pieces of information listed above, you should be good to go for many places. It probably wouldn’t hurt to tack on the bit about the company itself, too, just to be safe. While I don’t personally prioritize it as an acquisitions editor, others out there do want to hear what you know about their company and why you think your story would be a good fit.

Bonus commentary on Synopses:

CK: And where the synopsis goes, I quite like that Omnific doesn’t dictate a maximum length. That allows some freedom, though I do prefer within five pages. Anything in excess of that alerts me that your story might not be tightened either. (As a rule of thumb, I’d say a 60,000–80,000-word story can be effectively summed up in two to three pages. 90,000+ can understandably stretch to four or five if the plot is rather complex.)

CK: Also, don’t paste actual story excerpts into the synopsis. I think some people do that for filler or to sneak in a writing sample. But if you’re writing the synopsis correctly, the story’s tone and your style should show through without that. Also, like I said about the query letter summary, the synopsis demonstrates your command over your own story. If your synopsis is a long, rambling hot mess, we have every reason to believe your manuscript will be, too—and it’s one thing to read a few pages of that, quite another to entertain a few hundred.

Isn't she great? Thank you so much, CK for your forthright and honest answers. I'm taking away a lot from this series and I hope everyone else is too! 

On a different note, I want to do something with the schnazzy new graphics I just made for my books,so if you're of a mind to Tweet, Tumbl or Facebook the text & image below, please have at it. Thank you!

"A laugh out loud romance that will keep you smiling" #ThreeDaves http://goo.gl/nPGZEF

CK Wagner will be back to answer more questions as follows:


Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Thanks for sharing. I too wish the industry would share a common length for synopsis. I usually prepare a long and a short one when I finish a novel.

Feather Stone said...

Thank you very much, CK, for your response to the inquiries. It's quite revealing to see the issues from the point of view of the acquisitions editor. "I can see clearly now," LOL. Blessings.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Interesting answers. Good to have an idea of page count when it comes to the synopsis. (And yeah, three pages is my average.)

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Thank you for answering my question, CK. I suspected that anything over a page was too long.

Suze said...

Loooove your new 1986 tagline. :)

L.G. Smith said...

Very helpful info. When I'm querying, I usually have three different synopsis lengths ready to go. Some want a one page summation, some want two - five pages. Just depends on the agent/editor. Gotta be prepared. :)

Maurice Mitchell said...

I can see that. Clear and concise is the best way to go. I do love icing on my cake though...

M Pax said...

It's fascinating to learn how it all works.

Three Daves is a great book.

Mark Means said...

Some great insight, thanks for posting :)

Cherie Colyer said...

Thanks for the query tips =)

Janie Junebug said...

I can't be categorized. Nobody puts Janie in a corner.


Liz Blocker said...

Yes! I'm so glad you're doing this again. A big thank you to CK, too, for patiently answering questions!

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Posts like this one are very helpful, especially because I knew next to nothing about writing query letters before I started blogging.

Jennifer Lane said...

"Your love of writing and dreams of being a published author are implicit in the act of querying."

Excellent point!

This is awesome advice. My first synopsis I submitted to Omni was quite bloated, as I recall, and I'm glad they still asked for the first few chapters after that mess.